VVS Laxman at Hanging Heaton Cricket Club

Spot the Test superstar: Laxman on his 2019 visit to Hanging Heaton

© VVS Laxman

Feature

When VVS Laxman turned out to bat for Pudsey Congs

Did you know about the time, 25 years ago, when the Indian batsman plied his trade for clubs in the Bradford Cricket League?

Scott Oliver  |  

June 22, 1996, a balmy late Saturday afternoon at Lord's, and Sourav Ganguly carves Dominic Cork through cover and off down the slope to bring up three figures in his debut Test innings. The second member of India's great batting quintet of the 2000s is in place, with the third - now saluting his fellow debutant's landmark - ready to join him. At around the same time, 180 miles north in Idle, a village long swallowed up by Bradford's northern suburbs, a fourth member of that quintet was playing for Pudsey Congs in the Bradford League, edging the left-arm swing of Ian Dewhirst to slip for a duck (a shot that the laws of poetic licence oblige us to describe as "lazy"). A former colleague of Darren Gough and Michael Vaughan in Yorkshire Young Cricketers, Dewhirst cannot recall the dismissal, "although if my team-mates say he was caught at slip then I'm going to tell you I set him up with three inswingers then shaped one away," he yorkshires.

VVS Laxman was in his second season of Bradford League cricket and in the middle of a lean trot that yielded just 106 runs in seven knocks, one of which was 61. The following week he was caught and bowled by Yorkshire Bank's Carl Smith for a single. The previous year, as a fresh-faced 20-year-old, he had been the professional at Hanging Heaton, scoring 619 runs at a disappointing 29.48, although the team had landed the league title. While Rahul Dravid and Ganguly were lording it at Lord's, Laxman was nursing an average in English club cricket of a tick over 30.

The story of Laxman's Bradford League adventure starts with an innings of 28 for India Under-19s at Headingley in 1994 against an England U-19s team captained by Vaughan, with Marcus Trescothick his vice-captain. Looking on that day was Solly Adam, who had arrived in West Yorkshire from Karachi as a boy in the early 1960s and by the mid-'90s built a small business empire comprising a sports shop in the town of Dewsbury, six petrol stations, and a mini-market, Pick 'n' Pay. Adam, who preferred to think of himself as a facilitator rather than an agent, had arranged for several Indian and Pakistani cricketers to experience English league cricket, including Abdul Qadir and Imran Khan. He was also instrumental in Sachin Tendulkar becoming Yorkshire's first ever overseas player in 1992. The young import lodged with Adam before moving into a bungalow up the road. That same year, Tendulkar's schoolmate Vinod Kambli played under Adam's captaincy at Spen Victoria.

The way we were: the Hanging Heaton first XI, summer of 1995

The way we were: the Hanging Heaton first XI, summer of 1995

Having been impressed by Laxman's cameo, Adam spoke first to Hanging Heaton's cricket chairman, Brian Wilkinson, and then to the India U-19s manager, Sandeep Patil. Laxman visited the club, then signed up during the Youth Test at Edgbaston a week later, to follow in the footsteps of Indian batting legend Dilip Vengsarkar, who, as Hanging Heaton's 1987 overseas pro, had found the going equally tough, averaging 36.77.

"Playing junior grade cricket in India," Laxman reflects, "my coaches always said I should have one or two seasons in England, just to get the exposure of different conditions. They always recommended the Bradford League. They felt it was the toughest in England because most players in most squads got paid, whereas in other leagues only the professional was paid and most of the others were amateurs."

Laxman moved into a three-bedroom town house on the Leeds Road, five minutes from the club. "In India, everything is taken care of by our parents," he says. "[In England] I had to take care of everything: cooking my food, taking my clothes to the laundry, mopping the floor. It made me more independent and self-reliant, which was one of the reasons my coaches and family advised me to go."

Not that Laxman was throwing dinner parties. "Even though my mother gave me a recipe book," he says, "all I used to live on was baked beans on toast and cereals. In the second year, I learned how to make tarka dal, aloo jeera and mixed vegetables with paneer, but in the first year I used to go to Solly Adam's house in Dewsbury for lunch. In the evenings, my team-mate Ismail Dawood, his mother used to cook [dinners] for me for the entire week, and his father would drop it off at my house. So Solly Adam and Ismail Dawood's mother basically fed me for five months!" Incidentally, Dawood was contracted to Yorkshire, and made a hundred for England Under-19s in that Headingley match in 1994.

If the off-field adaptation was difficult, it was equally tough on the field, Laxman recalls. "When you're in India, you have an excellent support system. Your parents are always encouraging you, your coaches are always motivating you. When you're struggling, there are various people who will help you try and find the reasons why you're not performing. But there in England I had to look after everything myself. I started to take responsibility for each and every decision I made and action I took. Ultimately, I came to know myself much better as a person and understand my game much better. That first year was a huge change and it helped me a lot in my career."

Away from the domestic chores, his routine involved visiting the club in the mornings to do fitness, training on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and coaching the juniors a couple of evenings a week, which invariably finished with them bowling at him deep into the gloaming. But playing weekends only still left a lot of hours to fill between times, so he took a part-time job in a petrol station owned by Manish Patel, who became a lifelong friend.

When Laxman strode from the field unbeaten on 275 at the end of the fourth day of the middle Test of the 2001 Border-Gavaskar Trophy series, not many in the Eden Gardens crowd would have known that less than six years earlier he was working for £3 an hour in a West Yorkshire petrol station. But then there are many roads to cricketing immortality, and punching 20 gallons of unleaded, a Twix and a can of Fanta into the till is just one of them. "It really taught me the value of money and hard work," Laxman says, "and Manish is still like a brother to me." (Laxman's unglamorous job was a breeze compared to the situation faced by Mohammad Kaif four years later, when he arrived to discover the club he was supposed to play for had signed another overseas player. Visa in hand and desperate to experience English conditions, he offered his services to Lightcliffe, also in the Bradford League, free of charge, working in a Pick 'n' Pay to make ends meet. However, the nine o'clock finishes meant he was unable to practise, so Adam found him a job in a takeaway pizza parlour, while six Lightcliffe members chipped in £5 per week apiece to supplement his income. Kaif scored 1139 runs at 81.35 and the £30 payment was upped just enough for him to be able to quit his job.)

Although Hanging Heaton won the league, Laxman finished the season as only their third-highest run scorer. "I enjoyed it and was well looked after," he says, "especially by Simon Purdy, the captain, Ishy Dawood, and John Carruthers, who had told me all about bowling to Sachin and Vinod Kambli in the Spen Victoria nets in 1992. But it was a tough learning experience for me as a youngster. First, the wicket there was very slow and didn't suit my style of batting. Second, I learnt that as a professional you're supposed to perform each and every match. If I didn't score runs on a Saturday, the way the members used to treat me for the next week would be totally different than if I had performed. I never realised what it meant to be a professional. Whether you like it or not, everyone expects performance. That's the reason why you're there."

Laxman in the 1998 Commonwealth Games. He bowled plenty of offspin and medium pace in the Bradford League

Laxman in the 1998 Commonwealth Games. He bowled plenty of offspin and medium pace in the Bradford League Tony Marshall / © PA Photos

Following this five-month field trip in West Yorkshire, Laxman returned to his regular coursework at the University of the Ranji Trophy, signing off the campaign for Hyderabad with a magna cum laude run of scores: 79, 130, 196, 51 and 203 not out, the latter then a career best. Doubtless, the news would have been well received at Pudsey Congs, with whom he had agreed to play the 1996 season.

Laxman's recollection is that he made a few runs against them for Hanging Heaton, and their captain, Phil Carrick, approached him in the bar. Derrick Reason, Congs' chairman then, and now their president, adds an important detail. "During the match at Hanging Heaton, Phil was bowling his left-arm spin to VVS, who nicked one to the wicketkeeper. The umpire never heard it and VVS didn't walk, so after the game Phil made a point of talking to VVS. That's where their relationship started."

The 43-year-old Carrick had enjoyed a 24-year career at Yorkshire, taking 1081 first-class wickets and scoring over 10,000 runs. He captained the county for the final three years of the 1980s, succeeding David Bairstow, and was an affable man who knew the game inside out. His influence on the 21-year-old Laxman would be profound, a paternal presence away from the cricket and a professorial one on match days.

"Those five months at Pudsey Congs were the best period of learning in my career before I played for India," Laxman says. "Phil and his wife Ellie made me feel like part of their family. After living in a three-bedroom house the year before, which was a lot to look after, I asked if I could stay in a one-bedroom apartment. So for one week [while the flat was being sorted out] I stayed with Phil on his farm, and because I was a vegetarian, for the entire week the whole family ate only vegetarian meals. That gave me a feeling of trust and the relationship started from that moment and really grew through the season."

Back at his old stomping ground

Back at his old stomping ground © VVS Laxman

Carrick's deep knowledge of the game was one of the major draws of Congs, Laxman says. "Phil persuaded me I had the potential to play international cricket for a long time. He had played a lot of cricket with greats like Geoffrey Boycott, so I felt he would be able to help me a lot. Every chat with Phil was enriching. I became more knowledgeable about the game - how to address various situations, how to tackle opposition bowlers - and that experience really helped me to perform well the next season in India. Every chat was always about becoming an international cricketer, not just a first-class player."

There were other quality cricketers in that Congs team, too. Laxman's opening partner was Colin Chapman, a wicketkeeper who collected a smattering of Yorkshire appearances over an eight-year stretch and scored 841 league runs in 1996. Future three-time ICC Umpire of the Year Richard Kettleborough batted at first drop, averaging 59.22. And then there was 19-year-old blond-haired pace-bowling tyro Matthew Hoggard.

"Hoggy was a very good friend of mine," Laxman says. "Phil always used to make sure that whenever Hoggy came back to Pudsey from a Yorkshire 2nd XI match, he had to call me and we would go to the club and have a net session, with fielding and fitness too. It was only me and Hoggy on the Astroturf wickets at the bottom of the ground. Then his dog used to go and fetch the ball. It was me, Hoggy and his dog!" This would not have helped conventional swing (although, once the slobber had dried out, may have made it go reverse).

Hoggard gets Laxman at last, in the last Test the two featured in together, Nagpur in 2006

Hoggard gets Laxman at last, in the last Test the two featured in together, Nagpur in 2006 © Getty Images

In his autobiography, Welcome to my World, Hoggard writes: "After one game when [Laxman] had scored a few runs and I'd taken a couple of wickets, we were chatting to Ferg [Carrick, after "Carrickfergus" of the famous folk song] in the clubhouse. 'One day,' Ferg said, 'you two will play against each other in Test match cricket.' We just laughed at him and told him not to be so daft."

As it turned out, they faced each other in eight Tests, and it took Hoggard until the final one of those to dismiss "Lax", lbw first ball en route to 6 for 57 and a Man-of-the-Match award in Nagpur. Laxman was dropped for the next game.

Ten years before that, Laxman started his season at Congs well, with 97 at Saltaire and 105 not out at Yeadon in the first two away games, sandwiching a score of four against Windhill. Their pro, John "The Dentist" Maynard, had played for Leeward Islands and would later represent Nevis in the Stanford Series. Maynard's nickname, fairly unsurprisingly, was on account of a penchant for rearranging batsmen's pearly whites. Even so, Laxman would look forward to his dental appointment in the second half of the season, pulling and hooking his way to a hundred - the middle one of a run of a trio of tons, with Saltaire and Yeadon again suffering - but not before enduring that mid-season slump, which was fixed with no little help from Carrick.

"Phil saw I was struggling for rhythm, so he got me some nets and matches with the Yorkshire academy," Laxman recalls. "He also made a subtle change in my grip. And he got me some games as part of Peter Hartley's benefit season, too, playing alongside the likes of Martyn Moxon and David Byas. So I almost felt part of the Yorkshire dressing room. I made a couple of fifties and didn't look back."

Colin Chapman and Laxman walk out to open for Pudsey Congs in 1996

Colin Chapman and Laxman walk out to open for Pudsey Congs in 1996

Indeed he didn't. The second half of the 1996 season brought 849 runs at 94.33, with scores of 79, 67 (against Bowling Old Lane, whose pro, Mohammad Yousuf, replaced Laxman at Pudsey in 1997), 31, 102 not out, 114, 104 not out, 62, 79, 27, 66 not out, 30, 95 not out, and 60 in the final game, away at Yorkshire Bank. Congs had started the final match in second place, and with leaders Hanging Heaton failing to win, they had a golden opportunity to give Laxman a second straight league title. As it turned out, they were unable to take ten wickets for the outright win and third-placed East Bierley came up on the rails to snatch the spoils.

Nevertheless, Laxman finished with 1253 runs at 65.95, winning the Bradford League Player-of-the-Season award. He also sent down 244 overs of workmanlike offspin - he had bowled just 17 wicketless overs of medium pace for Hanging Heaton - picking up 30 wickets at 23.20, to support Carrick's 82. Less than ten weeks later he was making his Test debut, scoring a half-century against South Africa in Ahmedabad, before heading off on the return tour to South Africa.

On New Year's Day, as he prepared for his first overseas Test, in Cape Town, he faxed seasonal salutations to Derrick Reason, whom he later invited to his wedding, in February 2004. He maintained correspondence with Carrick, too, up until his premature death from leukaemia at 47 in January 2000, nine days after Laxman's maiden Test hundred, in Sydney and, heartbreakingly, a couple of years before the latter's first Test duel with Hoggard in Mohali.

"Phil would write me messages telling me I was doing well," says Laxman, an evident fondness laced with equally palpable sadness, even 20 years on. "Or he would pick up on weaknesses, like in West Indies in 1997. Then suddenly the greetings cards and letters stopped coming and I wondered what was happening. It was only when I was in Australia in the 1999-2000 series, and I met an old club mate there, Mark Ross, and asked how everyone was doing and why Phil had stopped writing, that I found out he had cancer and passed away. He didn't say anything to me about it. The last I'd heard, he had started umpiring."

Greetings from down south: Laxman's fax to Derrick Reason in 1997

Greetings from down south: Laxman's fax to Derrick Reason in 1997 © Derrick Reason

It was a tragedy for all three that Carrick was unable to see his two protégés carve their distinctive lines across the international stage: Laxman flipping fourth-stump balls through midwicket and, if the mood took him, steering leg-stump balls through extra cover; Hoggard sending down those leg-stump deliveries, until three-quarters of the way down the pitch they were suddenly something else entirely. But he would surely have beamed with quiet pride at his Pudsey starlets ending up with 201 Test caps: exactly a third for Hoggard, two-thirds for Laxman.

When Laxman was next in England, on India's 2002 tour, Reason and Pudsey Congs club president Michael Knight drove up to the Indians' Hollins Hall Hotel and took him back to Congs to unveil a commemorative plaque on the clubhouse wall dedicated to Carrick, his "great mentor and friend". That same week, VVS took Tendulkar, Ganguly and several other players tired of hotel food over to the Patels' house in Dewsbury for authentic Indian cuisine. Ten years later, a few months after his friend's retirement, Manish Patel sought his consent to found the VVS Laxman Cricket Club, entering it into the serious-but-not-that-serious Bradford Mutual Sunday League.

The curtain came down on Laxman's illustrious international career in 2012, six months after his old Congs team-mate Kettleborough had umpired him in Dominica: Kettleborough's third Test as an on-field umpire, the ground's first, and Laxman's 123rd. But he has retained links with West Yorkshire into retirement, and last year, while commentating on the World Cup, dropped in at both clubs, a pilgrimage to the places where some of the pieces of his batting fell into place.

Historians, physicists, economists, evolutionary scientists, cricket coaches - all of them grapple with causality, with events and their causes. Who can deny that when Laxman scratched out a fresh guard on the fourth morning of that Kolkata epic and glanced up to see his team four down and still in arrears, a not insignificant part of what enabled him to believe the perilous mountain path to victory was navigable was embedded in those two summers of self-reliance, of nous absorbed on the pitches and in the dressing rooms of West Yorkshire?

Scott Oliver tweets @reverse_sweeper

 

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